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Still from “Black Lake,” commissioned by MoMA and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015. Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian.
Still from “Black Lake,” commissioned by MoMA and directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, 2015. Courtesy of Wellhart and One Little Indian.

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MoMA's Bjork Exhibit Is For Superfans Only

The show is ambitious but imperfectly realized.

Björk, the Icelandic, balladic, dance-fantastic musician of mononymic iconicity, entered the echelon of art history this week with the opening of her mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. By giving Björk exhibition space adjacent to modern masters, MoMA is officially redefining the notion of the museum-quality artist.


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The early critical reviews are in, and they're frankly not so hot. But Björk's visual charm is relentless, and her music still startlingly fresh—creating a few museum moments that make for pleasurable, primarily aural, and somewhat dreamy interludes to any midtown itinerary.

Visitors expecting a seamlessly high-tech, multisensory experience about a pop personality might be disappointed. Fans will find that the exhibition's dark, winding, and sound-propelled architecture embodies a personal narrative of wide-eyed emergence, heart-wrenching loss, and emerging empowerment. The storyline reflects the content of Björk's newest release Vulnicura, described by the musician as a "complete heartbreak" album composed after splitting from her longtime paramour, the artist Matthew Barney. In this light, the exhibition can be viewed as another step in the chronicle of Björk's struggle with the pain and power of her heart.

Visitors expecting a seamlessly hi-tech, multisensory experience about a pop personality might be disappointed.

Björk's creative collaborations with the edgiest and brightest in fashion, film, and music have spawned a seemingly endless array of very memorable, entirely distinct, yet resolutely Björk-ish personas over almost 30 years and nine solo studio albums. The exhibition is pitched as a retrospective, a challenge to any museum working with an artist whose medium is ephemeral and musical. One might expect a constant loop of music, a dense parade of jaw-droppingly wild costumes, and in-depth commentary on the creative partnerships that shaped Björk's success and longevity.

Indeed, Björk's gorgeous songs are offered as a retrospective in music video in a special screening room on the second floor. And the costumes are glittery, spectacular, and bizarre—but far too few in number. Worse, the history of Björk's transformation from a spritely musician from a Viking land to a powerful songstress and global muse is only suggested, and not at all explained.

We are left to fill in this history on our own. Your visit begins and ends with sound, through what is posed as a psychographic journey through Björk's heart. In the museum's atrium, audiences are led into a womb-like room with two channels of video. Commissioned by MoMA, "Black Lake," set to the fourth track on her new album, is sonically and visually enveloping. Björk appears in a mysterious cave, her beautiful voice coupled with painful physicality as she pounds her fists upon rock. The cave images unfold to a barrage of blue lava on black rocks. Her voice surges as her tiny figure finds her way out of the darkness, stands up off her knees, and walks away from us, carefully but confidently through a verdant and mystical landscape.

Bjork_MoMA_Packshot-3-2015
Bjork_MoMA_Medulla-3-2015

Left: Björk, Volta, 2007. Photography by Nick Knight. Right: Björk, Medulla, 2004. Photography by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin. Both images courtesy of Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian.

Upstairs on the third floor, amidst sheet music and live performance videos, you are given headphones and an iPod. This device tracks your position in the exhibition, and adjusts its narrative as you move. Headphones on, a voice (not Björk's, but that of Margret Vilhjalmsdottir, an Icelandic actress) tells a story. It is an epic poem of sorts about a soul-searching young woman, and it encourages you to slow down.

A dark, draped warren of narrow hallways gives way to a sporadic collection of notebooks, videos, costumes, and ephemera that follow Björk's musical history as a solo artist. The inescapable soundscape of voice and music fleshes out the glorious happiness of the outsize video projection of "Big Time Sensuality" and Marjan Pejoski's infamous swan dress for the Oscars, and gives volume and meaning to Alexander McQueen's wispy "Pagan Poetry" dress and Bernard Wilhelm's immobilizing body sculpture.

The design of the exhibition space simply does not live up to the strong visual content for which Björk is renowned.

Throughout, there are ghosts of Björk's presence: through her heartfelt writing in notebooks, in the voice that whispers her story in your ears, and, uncannily, as an army of waxen mannequins with realistic faces that appear in every room.

These exhibition components are compelling, but the overarching journey feels disjointed at times. The design of the exhibition space simply does not live up to the strong visual content for which Björk is renowned.

The museum’s openness to art across genres, and to pop aesthetics more broadly, is not new, and it's an acknowledgement of audiences for whom most art forms—high, low, fine, popular, digital, analog—exist seamlessly on a spectrum of value. As a groundbreaking musician who moves with ease between these worlds, Björk is a perfect and rather sensible subject. However, the exhibit doesn't quite strike the same note as the encyclopedic view of David Bowie at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago last year, which presented Bowie’s music alongside his cultural influence in fashion and visual culture.

Bjork's show is also ambitious, but it is purposefully incomplete. Its organizational perspective is not driven by how she has been publicly received and reinterpreted, but rather by Björk’s personal practice as an artist, and the current subject of her music—her broken heart. Because of this, her swirly, sprawling, and poetic nature feels too often constrained by the museum’s architecture.

"Black Lake" might be the best part of the exhibition, and it is also evidence of the artist making the terrifically vivid collaborative work that has been her signature. But if the soundscaped path through MoMA feels meandering, that must be by design. The exhibition’s proposal to move the audience through the galleries as though on a journey through a body—through the musician’s very heart and soul—is bold, but imperfectly realized. This show is not for everyone, but Björk fans can’t help but rejoice.

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